Monday, May 28, 2007

a rough experience through the bush, indeed

Dear Dr. E----- P-----. Consider this my official confession that, though I sat diligently in your second-year literature class, I read very few of the assigned texts. I could likely find a reason why that was your fault, but that would be fairly disingenuous. I was just kind of more interested in teaching than in keeping up in your class. As a result, my A- in your class is the only A- that I'm actually mad about because I could probably have worked a lot harder. For instance, you assigned Roughing It in the Bush. I opted to not read it, and look at how that bit me in the ass -- now I have to read the freaking thing in two days. So I apologize (a) for making you think I was paying attention in your class, and (b) for shooting myself in the goddamn foot for not taking any notes on this book. Sheesh. Kinda wishing I had been a better student in your CanLit class, because looking at my comps list I really could have at least had an idea of some of these if I wanted to.

Roughing It in the Bush
by Susanna Moodie

Reader! It is not my intention to trouble you with the sequel of our history. I have given you a faithful picture of life in the backwoods of Canada, and I leave you to draw your own conclusions. To the poor, industrious working man it presents many advantages; to the poor gentleman, none! The former works hard, puts up with coarse, scanty fare, and submits with a good grace, to hardships that would kill a domesticated animal at home. Thus he becomes independent, inasmuch as the land that he has cleared finds him in the common necessaries of life; but it seldom, if ever, in remote situations, accomplishes more than this. The gentleman can neither work so hard, live so coarsely, nor endure so many privations as his poorer but more fortunate neighbour. [...] Difficulties increase, debts grow upon him, he struggles in vain to extricate himself, and finally sees his family sink into hopeless ruin.

If these sketches should prove the means of deterring one family from sinking their property, and shipwrecking all their hopes, by going to reside in the backwoods of Canada, I shall consider myself amply repaid for revealing the secrets of the prison-house, and feel that I have not toiled and suffered in the wilderness in vain.

Based on the title, you may be expecting a titillating romp through some sort of lesbian dreamworld -- such is not the case. Instead, Susanna Moodie has created a memoir that simultaneously celebrates and completely trashes all that is Canada. On the one hand, Moodie seems to be very proud of her own achievements in coming to Canada and finding strengths and skills she could not have imagined cultivating in England. On the other hand, she tells of pain, torment, suffering, and struggle, and begs people to stay in England if that is where they more naturally belong. Indeed, Moodie seems ambivalent towards Canada -- likely because, unlike the other writers I have explored so far in the colonial period, Moodie was Canadian for keeps. There was no turning back and no changing the mind for Moodie. She knew her family could not return, and that Canada was officially her new home. Where Brooke and Jameson were both merely passing through, trying Canada as a lark with a concrete exit strategy, Moodie is a true pioneer, having to make the best of Canada for the good of her family. Furthermore, though having emerged from the same or similar class of society as Brooke and Jameson, the latter retained their socio-economic status where Moodie had to experience absolute destitution (which in my opinion nuances and layers her writing and discussions of the different people in England). Finally, of course, Jameson and Brooke were urban women (even when there isn't much to write home about it terms of urbanity), where Moodie, of course, roughed it in the bush.

I think part of what is so interesting in this book is that Moodie is ambivalent on not only Canada, but on herself, the people around her, and even her husband. Most interesting is her ideas about feminism and the abilities of women. In stark contrast to the unabashedly feminist Anna Jameson, Moodie doesn't seem to know where she herself stands on the rights and responsibilities of women. She pays very little attention to social structures and sociopolitical matters, and indeed fully leaves the political matters to be written about by her (deathly dull, boring, and insufferable) husband who is given over to writing about three or four chapters on the specific political climate of Canada. As a result, we never get to know what Moodie herself thinks of the way women are treated in Aboriginal society, which is a shame because those observations are what offered so much insight into the views of women's issues for both Jameson and Brooke.

Moodie clearly views women as the weaker sex, and says as much regularly. But it is not merely her overt references to her own weakness and the weakness of other women. Sometimes such overt discussions of feminine failure cloak more progressive actualities -- speech being one thing, and act another. Not so for Mrs. Moodie. Most telling is the fact that she is constantly surprised by her own capabilities. She never believes she can do anything before she sets out. Whether the task at hand is milking a cow, navigating a canoe, gifting a stranger with food, or making financial decisions, Moodie is always likely to assume failure. The ridiculous thing, though, is that, in comparison with her husband, Moodie is a successful Bushwoman. It is the choices of her husband that lead to the economic ruin of the family, and it is not her husband's hard work but rather her letter to the lieutenant-governor that secures the full-time military post that saves them from the bush. Moodie has every reason, by about page 300 at least, to believe in herself and have faith in her own strength. But she continues to berate her sex and look down upon her own options, choices, and abilities. Moreover, she is shocked by her every success, and complacent with her every failure. Though her husband leaves her regularly, by the end of the book, to tend to the farm alone, she does not see it as work she is suited to, and fears failure at every turn. She tends to put this down to her femininity, which she fears is lost among the people of the bush.

One interesting social observation Moodie shares in the text is her perceptions of the Chippewa people -- this contrasts so intensely with Jameson's experience that it is worthy of note. Where Jameson was charmed and delighted by the Chippewa, Moodie is disgusted. She sees them as ugly, stupid, and unpleasant, and while she makes friends with some eventually, it is with a constant reminder of her own superiority to them. Jameson, conversely, found devoted friendships among the Chippewa, who she really seemed to see as her equals. Where Moodie focuses long sections on the appearance of the Chippewa, as though she can't quite believe how ugly she finds them to be, Jameson felt no such need. This is interesting especially as Moodie was closer in social status to the Chippewa than was Jameson by their respective points in the narrative -- it seems as though Moodie is desperate to draw a line between her own poverty and the poverty of the Aboriginal people, and define the latter group as a definite other in comparison with her own family.

Another point where Moodie shows her biases is in her discussion of the charivari. This barbarous custom is a way of punishing "disgraceful" marriages, but it's also a clear form of racialized violence -- in Moodie's account, a young black man is killed by a mob for marrying a white woman, and it is all taken as good fun by the community -- regrets are uttered, but no one is ever prosecuted for the crime. Moodie has an outward show of outrage at the custom, but this outrage is undercut by the fact that she prefaces the story by telling the reader she will turn to lighter things. She seems to tell the story with an eye to local colour, but the result is instead quite horrifying indeed.

In the end, I was surprised by how readable I found Moodie's account of bush life. A better writer than Jameson, I think -- Jameson is very much a journalist and gives lots of details, but Moodie is careful to ensure that every chapter (save those written by her husband) includes lots of interest building up to a major conflict, which gives fuel to the reader than Jameson fails to offer. In the end, I think it's a book every Canadian should probably read once... If only to be grateful for how far we have come!

Incidentally, if you want to "rough it" in the area where Susanna Moodie did, there's now a spa not far from her original farmstead. My Mum and I have both been there and can attest to its awesomeness -- certainly better than Moodie's accommodations, I assure you!

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